Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Hunan Taste in Catonsville
Let's start by admitting that I am not entirely open to this cuisine. You can buy the entire animal at Hunan Taste -- lungs, kidneys, stomach and more -- and I'm still working up to the head-on shrimps. (Plus, Mrs. HowChow and I were dining without any Hunan experts. How were *we* going to know if this really good lung or really bad lung?)
But Hunan Taste has an enormous menu, and the food had clear, spicy flavor that beats any of the American-born dishes that I have eaten at my local Chinese joints. They're enthusiastic about authentic Hunan food -- handing out two menus -- one American, one Hunan -- and leaving cards on every table asking you to raise any issues so they can "make arrangements." Don't worry. Just check other on-line reviews, which started as far as I can tell with a Chowhound post by DStattler and early comments by Warthog. On our visit, we relied on a later Chowhound post -- especially the dish-by-dish section that describes a banquet that a bunch of Chowhounders attended.
We ordered preserved sausage with smoked bamboo shoots (#52), tea tree mushroom with pork casserole (#94), and eggplant on iron plate (#95). A feast for two with more than enough for two lunches the next day. Again, this is exotic fare even in vegetables. Smoked bamboo shoots are a revelation. The meat was more like pork than sausage, and it played second fiddle to the smoky flavor of the shoots, which were perfectly tender like all the vegetables.
Despite those both, I think the eggplant was our consensus favorite. The eggplant comes out on a hot iron plate -- protected by aluminum foil that we laughed at because "aluminum foil on the roasting sheet" was one of the compromises we made when I moved into Mrs. HowChow's kitchen. The eggplant was perfect -- firm skin so that you could spear each piece, but so tender that the flesh almost melted in your mouth. Like much of this food, the great mouth feel came from some serious fat. Oils or maybe fat from the pieces of pork that flavored each dish. This is one of the "meat as a condiment" dishes that I love, similar to the Afghan appetizers where a little ground beef flavors a plate of pumpkin or raviolis. I need to check next time for truly vegetarian items, but I bet that you could get whatever you want from a kitchen this talented.
To award the highest praise in Maryland food blogs, this is Grace Garden territory. Absolutely unique Chinese food. In contrast, this isn't Grace Garden's spartan design. Hunan Taste is a stylish restaurant that someone designed with a talented eye. The traditional dark wood and Chinese red translated into a modern design so nice that I thought that we would buy some of the art off the walls. They also win points with the HowChows for some complimentary starts -- a plate of peanuts and a plate of sliced radish. Those touches make even a casual dinner seem luxurious, and we'll certainly be back for me.
Several of HowChow's favorites have also written about Hunan Taste, including Kwok's Blog, Dining Dish, TheMinx on Urbanspoon and This is Gonna Be Good. If I missed other reviews, please link them in the comments. Hunan Taste is the kind of place where blog reports are invaluable for people who don't know what to order. Click here for my 2010 write-up of Chinese restaurants in Howard County.
(Update: I fixed the address.)
718 North Rolling Road
Catonsville, MD 21228-4135
NEAR: This is the shopping center with the H Mart in Catonsville. It's a Rte 40 and Rolling Road. If you drive from Ellicott City to Rte 40, watch for the signs for FedEx and Starbucks on the right. Turn into the parking lot, drive past the H Mart and look for Hunan Taste a few doors down.